* Political labels to describe people who are taking part in debates that are essentially about matters of doctrine.
* Vague political labels, in particular, to describe complex leaders in ancient traditions, ranging from Catholicism to Orthodox Judaism, from Eastern Orthodox Christianity to Buddhism (I am thinking about the Dalai Lama as I type that).
I mean, try to pick an appropriate political label to describe the life and faith of the Servant of God Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement. If you want to struggle with that, cruise around in this Google Search -- pointing toward the work of those who are promoting her cause to be recognized as a saint -- and look for evidence of her holding unorthodox beliefs on matters of church tradition, moral theology and the creeds. Good luck with that.
How about Pope John Paul II? Anyone want to pin an easy label on Mother Teresa? How about the late Cardinal John O'Connor of New York? You may want to be careful with that one. How about Sargent Shriver and, especially, his wife Eunice Kennedy Shriver? The late Gov. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania?
I could go on and on.
However, coverage of the retirement of Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles -- see this previous GetReligion post -- has offered some sterling examples of what happens when mainstream journalists do not really know what label to assign to a religious leader. Is this a progressive/reformer/liberal or is he a traditionalist/conservative/orthodox guy? Things can be so complicated.
Consider, for example, the opening paragraphs of this Associated Press report on Mahony. Let's try to spot a few buzz words as we go along, shall we?
LOS ANGELES -- When Cardinal Roger Mahony was ordained nearly a half-century ago, the Roman Catholic church was in the throes of a modernization and renewal -- and the lanky young priest who grew up near his family's poultry processing plant was seen as a leading liberal light for the times.
OK, one vote for "liberal." You should also note that "liberal," presumably, is another way of saying that Mahony is pro "modernization," which, in his case, is a verdict on which a wide range of Catholics would agree. But is this the modernization of doctrine or liturgy or administration or what? Also note that "liberal" equals "renewal." Note that well.
As a seminarian and young cleric, the Spanish-speaking Hollywood native celebrated Mass with Mexican fieldworkers, worked with Cesar Chavez to fight for better farmworker conditions and was appointed auxiliary bishop of Fresno, the heart of California's bread basket, at the tender age of 38.
More logic here. The assumption is that his most important work is connected to politics and economics. So, in doctrinal terms, is Mahony being "liberal" or "traditionalist" when taking a stand on these matters of social justice? Let's ask Dorothy Day about that one. Or how about John Paul II and the leaders of Poland's Solidarity labor union.
More, you say?
Mahony retires Sunday and hopes to cement that legacy by dedicating himself fulltime to the fight for immigration reform. For many, though, the cardinal's career will instead be defined -- and irreparably tainted -- by a devastating clergy abuse scandal that unfolded on his watch, first as bishop of Stockton and then as head of nation's largest archdiocese.
The scandal, which resulted in a $660 million settlement with more than 500 plaintiffs, proved to be the biggest erosion of Mahony's authority in a church that had already shifted around him with a revived emphasis on orthodoxy and tradition. In his final years in Los Angeles, Mahony has been dogged by hundreds of lawsuits, criminal investigations into clergy abuse in the archdiocese and a bitter legal fight over sealed church files on some of the church's worst abusive priests.
Here's my take. It seems that Mahony was a good Catholic "liberal," except that he fell short when it came time to carry that banner on matters of clergy sexual abuse.
More logic. That would mean that doctrinal conservatives would be, well, in favor of a lax approach on abuse and liberals would favor "reform" and public repentance. Really? Is that consistent? I don't know about you, but I have seen plenty of sins on the left and the right during the clergy sexual-abuse era.
Also, note the story's suggestion that his efforts to fight for immigration reform, workers' rights, social justice and other causes were causing clashes with the "revived emphasis on orthodoxy and tradition" in the Church of Rome. So a renewed doctrinal orthodoxy in Rome (What else could "tradition" mean in this context?) clashes with Mahony's history of activism on economic issues. Really? Again, let's pose that one to Dorothy Day.
What? You want more?
The decades of Mahony's service defined an arc of dramatic change that saw the church shift from the more liberal attitudes of the 1960s to a centralized hierarchy under Pope John Paul II and a renewed embrace of tradition under Pope Benedict XVI. The selection of Archbishop Jose Gomez to take over after Mahony's 75th birthday underscores those changes: Gomez is a member of Opus Dei, the influential group favored by Pope John Paul II that fiercely defends church orthodoxy and authority.
There's much, much more -- including an appearance by the official ordained voice of American journalism.
But here is the question that I really wanted to see answered here: If Mahony differed with Rome on issues of tradition and doctrine, as suggested by this report's drumbeat of "liberal" vs. "orthodox" labels, what were the theological, doctrinal and liturgical issues that defined these divisions? I can't find any concrete examples in this story. Can you?